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Album reviews – Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’ & ‘Fallout 3’ albums, 2002 (“a game of reverse-chicken… impressive and utter liquefaction”)

18 Mar

Darkroom: 'Fallout 2'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’

The second part in Darkroom’s ‘Fallout’ trilogy ( a set of interwoven concert travelogues) sees the unorthodox dark-ambient trio shrink to fit circumstances: recorded over the course of four gigs in Cambridge between spring 2000 and spring 2001, ‘Fallout 2’ records their first period of work as a duo. With singer Tim Bowness temporarily absent from the group, the five lengthy live tracks see Darkroom’s sound now built up entirely from Andrew Ostler’s infinitely malleable, polluted volume of electronic sounds and Michael Bearpark’s massed, heaven-and-hell loop guitars.

Subtracting the singer should have meant removing the human face from Darkroom’s activities. It should have forced their music – which was already suffused with hanging menace, dense atmospherics and chaotic leanings – further down the road to alienation. In fact, the opposite is true. Minus those fragmentary Bowness sighs, whispers and melodic wails, Darkroom do relinquish part of their edge of romance and distress. But they also dispense with the intimations of human disintegration, morbidity and panic which Tim’s beautifully tortured vocal tones brought to the project.

In his absence, Darkroom is able to relax and experiment with a two-way balance instead of the three-way teeter they’d thrived on previously. Os and Michael sit back and play off each other – not in unison, but in a dialogue of occasional crossings and of deceptive, mock-disengaged responses. As with ‘Fallout One‘, the two-man Darkroom continue to embrace instinctive wandering noise-stews rather than art-rock discipline.

For this album, at least, these are gentler brews: one even begins with a serene duet of heaven-scented loop guitar and a windblown squiggle of pink noise, rather than the warning tones of before. Released from some of his duties as textural foil to Tim, it’s Michael who now gives the music its anchors: cyclic calling phrases, humming confections of layered Frippertronic-like loops, space-echoed licks, sometimes a sound like someone wrenching their way out of a giant metal tank. Os – as usual – takes responsible for most of the layers of sonic detail and for the most drastic directional shifts within Darkroom’s ever-restless improvisations.

Os’ increasing plunderphonic tendencies (linking and threading pieces with snippets of international radio conversation, Cambridge choristers or muezzin calls) prove that behind his responsibilities for the main body of Darkroom’s sound, he’s also the joker in the pack, dialling up effects and textures from a vast trick-bag of electronic sounds which he then sloshes across the speakers and leaves to evolve. His rhythms, too, betray a sense of cool, amused mischief. He’ll stitch in trails of techno beats, or hijack a piece five-and-a-half minutes in with jazzy cymbals and toms drenched in flapping dub treatments. He’ll even drop in the occasional comedy drum-wallop to accompany some blooping synth sounds he appears to have stolen off a kiddy-ride in a shopping center. Inscrutable humour aside, Os also assembles a remarkable variety of more solid elements to flesh out Darkroom’s randomness: imposing psychedelic cadences, static veils and suggestive electrophonic shapes.

Though Michael Bearpark’s playing still owes a debt to Robert Fripp (via his “Bearatronics” loops and his occasional digressions into trumpet-guitar), he’s far less formally-minded. While you could also draw parallels to the mangled roots sounds used by David Torn, Michael is a far more reticent, distant and watchful guitarist: less flamboyant, but similarly eclectic. Across the album, he comes up with the kind of junkyard guitar that Marc Ribot would be proud of; or treats us to yanks and scrabbles of twanging guitar in the vein of Henry Kaiser or Fred Frith. He unwinds collapsing, Spanish-guitar-style electric rolls; or feeds in the Bill Frisell-influenced ghost-country minimalism that he’s increasingly stamped onto Darkroom music. Os responds with gusty, gauzy swirls of noise, or busies himself chopping up the sound even as Michael enriches it.

It’s co-operation of a kind, I suppose. Sometimes the Bearpark/Os interplay is gloriously subtle. More often, they’re engaged in a game of reverse-chicken in which they seem to be seeing just how far they can wander from each other’s playing before Darkroom collapses, adding a kind of free-jazz risk to the elements of illbience, Krautrock and musique concrete that already flourish in the group’s sound. Darkroom’s apparent abstract shapelessness (more accurately their indifference to, and boredom with, the monotonous formality of much electronic music) seems to put a lot of people off. However, their loosely-knit and liberated music still has few rivals or peers in electronica.

Darkroom: 'Fallout 3'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 3’

Tim Bowness returns for ‘Fallout 3’ which at first listen sounds as if it could be pegged as the kinder, gentler Darkroom. This seems an unlikely label. Nonetheless, the album initially seems something of a let-up from Darkroom’s unsettling dark-ambient explorations.

As the group’s main studio-flexer, Os exerts most of the active control over the emerging music. On this occasion, he does this by taking more of those Darkroom live recordings and drastically remixing them. Drawn from two of the mid-2000 Cambridge gigs which initiated ‘Fallout 2’ (plus four other gigs between 1999 and 2000 in Cambridge and London), ‘Fallout 3’ is tagged as “a celebration of the art of post-production” and compresses their rich, chaotic improvised sprawl into a thickening wall of noise. This is Darkroom as jelly, rather than their usual coils of prismatic vapour. In the process, it displays a side of the group which might appeal better to ambient-music aficionados and art/noise acolytes (those who’ve so far proved immune to, or unconscious of, Darkroom’s brooding wide-open power).

The art-rock richness of Tim’s keening, beautiful-agony vocal was previously something of a scene-stealer – especially when it reached heights of drama which recalled Peter Hammill at full tilt. This time it drifts faintly through the mix like a displaced ghost. Half-obscured, half-dreamy, its physical presence fades to a livid imprint. As for the industrial-melodic textures of Michael’s guitars (and his layered MiniDisc manipulations), these have sunk even deeper than before into the fabric of Darkroom sounds, as have most of the drum loops. The most audible Darkroom instrumentation to be heard on ‘Fallout 3’ is the humble studio fader and the reverb unit, teasing their way through the music and rebuilding detail.

Turned right down, ‘Fallout 3’ sounds like the smooth-peanut-butter option compared to the crunchier varieties of ‘Fallout One’ and ‘Fallout 2′. Turned up, though, the music piles upwards inexorably; like a thick fluid shot through with veins of displaced voices. Sometimes these voices belong to Tim, processed almost beyond recognition to become muttering crowds or alien choirboys. Sometimes they’re radio voices stroked out of the ether by Os’ continuing casual interest in plunderphonics. Those little instrumental dialogues and monologues that used to weave through Darkroom pieces have been melted down too. Everything played becomes food to feed this new amorphous monster.

The result is that, more than ever, Darkroom’s music has the amnesiac, dissolving qualities of oceans. Powerful and ever-massing, and strangely indifferent to the repercussions of its nature. The sound itself, for what it’s worth, is closer to dry land if perhaps not stable ground. That continuously-rumbling, near-geological depth of soundfield and the thick “angry-earth” quality to the sound brings this reinvented Darkroom closer to the relentless, tectonic grind of Robert Hampson’s dark-ambient process music in Main. Like Main’s, the pieces on ‘Fallout 3’ are much of a muchness. All are slightly differing curves on a line mostly heading in one direction, arcing beyond post-rock to the land of out-rock. There’s far less of the more identifiable tendencies of the past – nowhere near as much of that Fripp-&-Eno-swimming-in-Lee-Perry’s-galactic-fishtank feel. The always diffuse identities of the Darkroom players are now barely there at all. The music has turned them inside out.

Consequently this is seventy-five minutes of impressive and utter liquefaction that’s still– identifiably – Darkroom, and which also enables them to thumb an invisible nose at past accusations of formlessness. Even when their musical substance is reduced to something as intangible as this, Darkroom’s baleful and beautiful intent remains intact: a long way beyond the easy trance to which most electronic acts are finally reduced. Darkroom’s vision is still inexplicable and alien. It’s also still undeniable.

Neither kinder nor gentler, then. Just even more seductively suffocating and inscrutable.

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’ & ‘Fallout 3’
Burning Shed (no catalogue numbers or barcodes)
CD-R/download albums
Released: 01 January 2002 (‘Fallout 2’) & 1st February 2002 (‘Fallout 3’)

Get them from:
Burning Shed (‘Fallout 2‘, ‘Fallout 3‘) or Bandcamp (‘Fallout 2‘, ‘Fallout 3‘)

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

December 2002 – EP reviews – North Sea Radio Orchestra’s ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP (“the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider”)

5 Dec

North Sea Radio Orchestra: 'North Sea Radio Orchestra' demo EP

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP

Though it isn’t a patch on their ornately gilded live performances, there’s still much on the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s debut recording to give you an idea of their fledgling fragility and freshness.

Making strikingly pretty voyages into English chamber music, the NSRO are a vehicle for the Frank-Zappa-meets-Benjamin-Britten compositions of the former Shrubbies/Lake Of Puppies guitarist Craig Fortnam. They feature a cross section of classical musicians and serious moonlighters from latter-day London art-rock bands like Cardiacs and Stars In Battledress; and they mingle a palpable innocence of intent with a taste for engagingly convoluted melodic decoration. All this plus eminent Victorian poetry too. At this rate, Craig will wake up one day to find out that the National Trust has staked him out.

He could use some backup, to tell the truth. This time, budget constraints mean that the NSRO’s flexible little company of clarinets, piano, violin, organ, cello and harmonium (plus Craig’s own nylon-strung electric guitar) gets squeezed into a recording vessel too small to give them justice. It’s a measure of the music’s innate charm that it transcends these cramped conditions, aided in part by the loving assistance of head Cardiac Tim Smith at the console.

Music For Two Clarinets And Piano, in particular, strides out in delicious pulsating ripples as it evolves from a folky plainness to an increasingly brinksman-like disconnection. The clarinets hang off the frame of the music like stunt-riders, chuckling and babbling cheerfully at each other, held up by bubbling piano. The keyboard trio of Nest Of Tables also overcomes the plinking tones of the necessarily-synthesized vibraphone and harp to embark on a long, waltzing journey over a stack of tricky chords: leaning on the piano, the benevolent spectres of Tim Smith and Kerry Minnear nod approval in the background like a pair of proud godfathers. Organ Miniature No. 1 (written and delivered by Stars In Battledress’ James Larcombe) manages to find a convincing meeting point for relaxed Messiaen, strict chapel and the better-groomed end of Zappa.

For many it’ll be the three Alfred Lord Tennyson settings which encapsulate the heart of the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s appeal. Featuring the soprano vocals of Sharron Saddington (Craig’s longtime musical and romantic partner), they’re as tart and sweet as freshly pressed apple juice. Somehow they manage to dress the poems up in artful, beautifully-arranged chamber flounces and frills without swamping them in too much chintz. It’s a fine line, which the NSRO tread by matching Tennyson’s blend of mellifluous personal introspection and cosmological scenery with similarly perfumed and illuminated music. Soft but increasingly detailed puffs of chamber organ gently rock Sharron’s summertime lament on The Lintwhite, from where it’s cradled in its bed of harmonium. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Craig chooses to orchestrate The Flower (a fable of beauty, nurture and prejudice which conceals a sharp judgmental barb) with a muted brass arrangement reminiscent of another sharp musical fabulist, Kurt Weill.

The crowning glory is Move Eastward Happy Earth, where Sharron sings a hymnal wedding waltz over joyfully welling piano. Refusing to sing in either classical bel canto or pure pop, Sharron comes up with her own tones in a full sweep of approaches between urchin, candyfloss and diva: here, she carols in a kind of beautifully-mannered choirboy ecstasy. She’s backed up by an exuberant miniature chamber choir who sweep between yo-ho-ho-ing madrigal accompaniment and full-throated burst festive celebration via a set of boldly harmonised canons. It’s a little trek through the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider.

Perhaps that last idea is as fancifully romantic of me as is Tennyson’s own image of the spinning planet, racing him on towards his marriage day. Or perhaps underneath it all I’m being as phoney as John Major, last decade, waxing corny about a vintage Albion of cycling spinsters and cricket whites on the village green. Dreams of English innocence and cleanliness can end up trailing their roots through some pretty murky places unless you’re careful. Nonetheless, for three-and-a-half minutes North Sea Radio Orchestra could restore your faith in its well-meaningness – all without a trace of embarrassment, or recourse to snobbery. They earn their right to their genuine dreamy innocence, and (for all of their blatant nostalgia) to their sincerity too.

Shoebox recording or not, here’s a little piece of wood-panelled chamber magic for you.

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP
North Sea Radio Orchestra (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: late November 2002

Buy it from:
(Updated, 2016) Best obtained second-hand – although it’s as rare as hen’s teeth.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

December 2002 – album reviews – Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Volume 1: Useless in Bed’ compilation (“happily balanced on the rougher brinks and fringes”)

4 Dec

Various Artists: 'House of Stairs Vol. 1 - Useless in Bed'

Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Vol. 1 – Useless in Bed’

Placing yourself on faultlines, rather than easily marketable turf, brings risks but inspiration – ask a San Franciscan. That the three London art-rock bands who originally set up the House of Stairs label (The Monsoon Bassoon, Geiger Counter, and Ursa) have all now split or mutated into something else is perhaps proof of both.

Regardless, ‘Useless In Bed’ – the first House of Stairs release – is a declaration of brotherhood. Compiling the work of musicians dwelling on various faultlines (though still mostly centred on London art-rock, it also takes in music from Chicago, Atlanta and Bordeaux), it both defines the edges of prog, jazz, art-rock, hardcore, electronica, folk, improv and noise rock, or encourages people to spill across them.


 
Hard-rocking math-proggers Foe – sprung from the wreckage of Geiger Counter – offer the most urgent track. ‘Triangulator’ is full of furious refracting guitar lines over Crawford Blair’s piano-growl of bass. For six minutes it swings, chops, drops down trapdoors, executes perverse King Crimson leaps between mordantly grim chords, and savages minor keys like The 5uu’s on far too much coffee. Geiger Counter’s posthumous statement is ‘Drink Your Milk’ – less obviously wired than ‘Triangulator’, it still carves up its grunge-y math riffs with heavy enthusiasm, embracing sweeter interludes of short-lived luminous peace as it does so. Nouveau Metal is spreading…

The Monsoon Bassoon‘s own posthumous offering is a explosive and complicated song from when their mingling of Henry Cow and gamelan-Crimson art-rock ran full tilt into their love of American alt.rockers like Shudder To Think. The psychedelic squeal of guitars on ‘Stag’ marches from plateau to jagged plateau in a skirl of trippy flute and meshing riffs, held together by the band’s tight discipline.


 
These days various Bassooners have regrouped in Miss Helsinki, who deliver a sparkling piece of progressive pop called ‘I Felt Your Arms Around Me’. Less surreal than most Bassoon confections, it’s still an acid-flavoured love song whose rattling good XTC jangle and tootling clarinets don’t stop it hurtling delightedly into a complex, storm-tossed middle section in which they see just how much you can rock the train without slinging it off the rails.

 
If you’d prefer to stick with the Bassoon’s skronkier legacy, Chicago’s Sweep the Leg Johnny are still juggling that torch. With the superb ‘Only in a Rerun’, they’re obviously on a roll – it’s a rich mixture of harsh Schizoid Man tones and flamboyant jazz-metal attack from the raw husky wail of Steve Sostak’s alto sax and Chris Daly’s bloodthirsty roar of guitar, tossing Sostak’s airy vocal like a bull tossing a skinny matador. Slewing between dEUS busyness and violent post-Slint minimalism, this is a rough bareback ride to put a wicked smile on your face.


 
Manic Glaswegian pranksters Lapsus Linguae provide ‘Olestra (There’s Only One Drinking Fountain in Heaven)’. A stab of theatrical art-metal somewhere between Faith No More and Beck (with a Resident eyeballing it from the director’s chair) it has all you need to storm the castle of pomp. There’s a man called Penelope Collegefriend singing in a rampant bellow like a punk Freddie Mercury; there’s an inexplicable strings break and a rolling piano line continually chopped off with guillotine precision; there are namechecks for Hermann Hesse and Charlton Heston, and choicely bizarre lyrics like “More I eat, the hungrier I feel – / I lick menus, ignore the meals.”


 
Holding up the genteel-er proggie end are the whimsical and witty projects of the Larcombe brothers. With ‘Sand (Blowing About)’, Stars in Battledress provide a beautiful dance of fluent piano and autoharp: but beyond the divertimento prettiness, James Larcombe leads the duo through eddies of suggestive Debussyan chords.

Richard Larcombe goes on to turn in a conceptual tease on Defeat the Young‘s wonderful ‘I’m Ruining Something’ – an absurdist essay on the corruptions of power which blends Gentle Giant with Lewis Carroll and Stravinsky. Larcombe greets his ensemble of actors, trombone, and full-blown operatic chorus as a lounge-lizard lord of misrule, sighing a manifesto of playful destruction in his arch, refined tones. “I’m recognised as your one sovereign Lord Protector / Trust me – I’ve learned of your country by tape and slide projector. / Each day I’ll go out of my way to spoil, deface and tarnish, / like he who ruins carpentry by swapping glue for varnish.” Oboe, piano and hammer dulcimer float in a dreamy arrangement like an August haze. Apparently there’s a whole album’s worth of this story in the Larcombe shed – ‘The Golden Spike’ – and it’s only one of their dastardly plans.

Both of House Of Stairs’ lo-fi electronica boffins seem to grab inspiration from bargain-bucket electrical goods. Desmotabs create an appealing Stylophone fanfare buzz on ‘Gaseous Exchange at the Alveoli’, let their drum machine go nuts and assault a heart monitor, and squiggle some demented Mini-Moog solos before the entire track melts like a Dali model. Max Tundra (the Frank Zappa of the techno world) continues his marvellous and bizarre mission to fuse hardcore dance music with prog rock. ‘Life in a Lift Shaft’ equals Desmotabs buzz-for-buzz while festooning tough and hilariously uptight Tundra beats with jittery robot piano and fat sub-bass from the tar-pits. Alarm-clocks fly past on tiny wings trying to take bites out of the zany, sunny tune.

The free-er bands – as usual – have a harder time. Gnarly bass-and-drums duo Guapo can be the missing link between ‘Red’ and Ruins when they want to be. However, their grinding ‘Pharoah’ – despite Dave Smith’s excellent Brufordian snarework – is mostly as subtle as a flying breezeblock. Dragging large chunks of pyramid across the desert and insisting that you appreciate each tortuous step, they occasionally snap, shoot off the flywheel and go ape with some fearsome tattoo riffs. Hardcore acoustic fusioneers Cheval de Frise hop up and down with impatience on ‘Chiendents’, banging their heads against their own lo-fi envelope, manically coiling up tighter and tighter acoustic guitar scrabbles against the tussling drums. Compression to destruction, breaking out in wild slashes.


 
And finally there’s the hardcore department, with the recently defunct Ursa demonstrating why they’ll be a sad loss to the British heavy scene. Avoiding hardcore’s usual fixed, deafening riffage and reductive howling, ‘The Blooding’ begins with a studied ponderousness and heaviness which gives way to an inspiring controlled demolition. Galloping punked-up Iron Maiden guitar runs charge under giant toppling riffs, the band dodging falling masonry via nifty turn-on-a-dime spins while losing none of their brute power. American Heritage, likewise, execute proggie timeswitches with rapid and brutal thrash flair, their sound a bleak, bare cliff of thick guitar noise. It’s anyone’s guess as to why they’ve called their track ‘Phil Collins’ – it’s an unlikely tribute, whether it’s aimed square at the Genesis drumstool or at the white-soul crowdpleaser.


 
Anyhow… here’s a house of many doors, happily balanced on the rougher brinks and fringes and demonstrating the breadth of personalities camped out in even one small part of today’s art-rock community. Admirable.

Various Artists: ‘House of Stairs Volume 1: Useless in Bed’
House of Stairs, HOS001 (5030094077829)
CD-only compilation album
Released: 2nd December 2002
Get it from:
(2020 update) best obtained second-hand
 

November 2002 – album reviews – Blue Apple Boy (with Tiny Wood)’s ‘Salient’ (“a fistful of hallucinated tabloid pages”)

6 Nov
Blue Apple Boy: 'Salient'

Blue Apple Boy: ‘Salient’

Change your name: it doesn’t always change your problems. Take Sleepy People, for example, who hauled their lively kaleidoscopic music around an unrewarding British indie circuit (and through a dozen fragile lineups) for a decade. In 2000 they relaunched as Blue Apple Boy, yet retained their perennial instability. Within a year, bandleader Paul Hope was stalled back home in Newcastle minus a singer and half of his musicians.

Sometimes, though, you can take advantage of the problems. At the same time, Britpop anti-hero Tiny Wood (the former frontman for indie-glam stars Ultrasound) was also back in Newcastle, his former band smeared across London as a smouldering Icarus-heap of terminal wreckage and recriminations. Before all that, back in the mid-’90s, Tiny had been the original Sleepy People singer: now he and Paul had common wounds to lick, common sympathies, some comforting nostalgia. Perhaps they even shared, and enjoyed, some affinity-building stubbornness. A mutually beneficial team-up must have seemed so logical…

All of which leads us to the Blue Apple Boy debut album, ‘Salient’ – effectively, a Sleepy People reunion, with the additional expectations of an Ultrasound sequel looming over it. Even before a note is heard, this album struggles with the conflicting yanks of cult-pop demands. Blue Apple Boy make as much hay as possible from Tiny’s cult-hero status, but risk a spurning from aggressively heartbroken Ultrasound fans (who might just crucify a hero who won’t do what they want of him). In practice, ‘Salient’ makes the most of these pressures and contradictions. It’s not quite what’s expected, yet it’s firmly familiar and keeps its own defiant identity to the end.

As with Sleepy People, the songwriting remains predominantly under Paul Hope’s control, and it’s his particular psychedelic quirks that dominate the record. All Systems Fail and Who’s That Calling are typical of this: cute and melodic, in-your-face playful; and leaping off in odd, sometimes vexing, directions as they caper and strive for your attention. Peculiar stories are flourished at you like a fistful of hallucinated tabloid pages. Riffling through assorted newspapers, Paul tracked down real-life accounts of sleepwalkers, bridge-fallers and other unfortunates: re-filtered through the Hope song prism, these tales suggest a tilted world in which people constantly stray off into the margins, crumpled and bizarre.

Whatever other changes the band have gone through, their free-romping jolliness remains intact. They retain their twitchy rhythms, their chugging power-pop guitar lines and their fairy-dust spangles of keyboard, (this time, provided by Vietgrove’s Norman Fay). Paul’s wife Rachel Theresa is still on hand to add her twirling cascades of flute and bubbling analogue synthesizer. In the space of a single song, Blue Apple Boy are likely to traverse space-rock, ska, post-punk and light entertainment. They’ll mix up, with equal affection, the memories of Magazine and The Monochrome Set with those of dusty archive clips of ‘Children’s Hour’; or fuse the nervous thresh of Cardiacs with the sitcom jingles of Ronnie Hazlehurst.

The band’s tinges of eerie head-spinning sound and fairytale absurdity – all very English – also nod to Syd Barrett or, more often, Gong. Despite Tiny’s top billing and Paul’s songwriting dominance, there’s occasionally a communal Gong-family feel to the album, and on three tracks, Tiny is absent altogether. It’s Rachel who provides the spun-sugar lead vocals to The Moon Is Hungry’s Gurdijieffian bossa-nova; and to the hokey-cokey, carousel-prog of Leave The Mud For The Worms. On Apples And Pears (a brief whimsical interlude of psychedelic innocence and nursery babble) Paul and Rachel’s children provide chatter and giggles.

Yet at the heart of the album is the return of Tiny – who has never seemed more at home anywhere than he does here. While Ultrasound had their moments of true connection and emotion, they were ultimately victims of their own grandiose quest for scale and significance: at their worst, they’d belly-flop into grotesque navel-gazing parodies of arena-rock. ‘Salient’ proves that Tiny’s brooding outsider tendencies and flinty tones turn out to be better in smaller environments, posting beady jabs of art-rock from halfway up the pole.

In addition, Tiny displays a knack for adding sardonic, solemn depth to even the most whimsical ideas. Carefully souring Paul Hope’s sonic candy, he highlights the dirt and scrapes lurking behind the playfulness. If Rachel has always been Paul’s most loyal musical foil, Tiny’s always been the one to add grit to his fancies.

For instance, a song about the disorientation and horror of retirement homes (Sunshine Valley Paradise Club) has almost too much musical gamesmanship going on. There are bundles of instruments falling out of the cupboard; there’s a spooky careen of a verse leading into a chorus like a ’70s sitcom theme wrestling with Iggy Pop, then tumbling down the stairs. To cap it off, there’s a dirty great plume of polluted guitar noise from Richard Green (another ex-Ultrasounder and former Sleepy Person, passing through with a psychedelic razz). Yet it’s Tiny, teetering between dignity and hysteria, who reaches through all of this romping and draws out the song’s humanity; the failing dignity of the elderly narrator, the chintz and decorum which rubs shoulders with the sinister.

At other times, Tiny shoves his way through a song like the bastard bare-knuckled offspring of Howard Devoto and the young Peter Gabriel. On Hanghar, Blue Apple Boy deliver a dogged psychedelic pelt along the reality faultline. While a bossa-nova flute-and-birdsong break sweetens the pill for a moment, Paul’s choppy blunt-razor-punk guitar and Tiny’s snarling slides across the melodies make it flit edgily between freedom and menace, vision and insanity. “Seeing the door that’s carelessly open, sliding like a shadow you move… / Light as a feather you’re sailing / while they’re nailing your face to the floor.”

Across the album, Tiny proves to have many more strings to his bow. He lends a junk-Sinatra majesty to the moonstruck marine gloom of Every Wave is Higher on the Beach, with its midnight compulsions and harbour lights: while its cryptic lyric is actually about spawning turtles led astray and into peril by human encroachments on their world, Tiny makes it sound like the return of a disorientated prodigal son. On the sinister sleepwalking fantasia of Dead Man Walking, he snarls over the spasming riffs like a resentful marionette. When he’s simply interpreting a song, though, he adds no more than implications, fine though they are. When he’s given a hand in the songwriting – adding layered lyrics to Hope’s musical inventiveness – he focuses the whole band onto something more pointed.

On the two occasions when this happens, Blue Apple Boy rise above their eccentricities to blaze out two Tiny-scaled anthems for the lost and sidelined (“Born from hope to homelessness, I think / Life is just a kitchen sink…”) As theatrical as anything Ultrasound offered, they recapture that band’s zest in spitting from the outside. These two songs also see Tiny fully focused – a surreal, self-appointed martyr; a champion of car-crash lives at the sharp end of a brutal universe. One of them, Cold War, is even explicitly billed as a follow-up to Ultrasound’s blisteringly romantic Stay Young. It sounds like the evil twin of a Christmas single – stately, but apocalyptic. Tiny struggles though a blasting, suffocating winter-of-the-soul: as people die in the snow around him, distant heartless bells tinkle.

The other song, Jump Start, has already had a few trips around the block. Previously (with different lyrics and frontman) it was a jittering, paedophile-panic single called Freak. Transformed by Tiny, it becomes a cavalcading anthem of blockages, resurgences and blown chances. “The golden door, / it shuts in your face and you’re always poor.” As melodies veer and crash around him, Tiny delivers a sardonic twist on the ageing underground spirit – “Citizen Smith went to heaven, and everyone else drove to Brighton / Cleaner, greener, newer – and I’m frightened…” Maybe it’s a portrait of the Ultrasound collapse; maybe it’s just Tiny voicing a sudden sense of the cold wind that suddenly blows around ageing romantics and freezes the Byron out of them.

Either way, it encapsulates the way this late, reconciling album works. There are bumps in the dream. If handed a nasty twist in the tale, sing it out with your own twist.

Blue Apple Boy (with Tiny Wood): ‘Salient’
Soma Sound, SOMASOUND002
CD album
Released: 28th October 2002

Buy it from:
Best obtained second-hand.

Blue Apple Boy online:
Last FM YouTube
Sleepy People online:
Facebook Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Amazon Music
 

October 2002 – EP reviews – Galitza’s ‘Laugh Like a Horse’ (“a sweet and sometimes raucous noise”)

27 Oct
Galitza: 'Laugh Like A Horse'

Galitza: ‘Laugh Like A Horse’

Galitza make a sweet and sometimes raucous noise. A Leeds alliance of self-styled “evil pop-bitch” Emma Bob III (formerly of Chest) with most of the mortal remains of sharp-witted popsters Landspeed Loungers, they’ve combined as a pop trifle of guitar chunks, lemony organ and various voices, laced with something heady and mischievous. Sometimes they sound like a Sarah Records band, but if so they’re one that decided to ditch emotional fragility for being naughty and happy, for adopting really stupid nicknames (Dr Strikto, anyone?), and for storming pubs and cheating at cocktail-drinking competitions. They’re also a Siamese twin act fronted by a husband and wife (Stevie and Emma) who only occasionally pull the Sonny and Cher trick; and only with a sly quirk, at that.

The two sides of Galitza share certain reflexes (the touch of rumbling funk in the basement, the attractive tangle of tangy guitars), but alternate faces. When it’s Stevie’s turn at the biggest mic, Galitza are sharp-tinged indie pop with a post-Loungers taste for sardonic wit. Empty Hands races and jangles along like a perkier Furniture, putting the boot into self-serving mediocrity (“a year or two, to and fro, nothing new – / you’re just passing through / and just OK”) and to bogus management (“now they talk, now you’re in, now you’re hot. / Tomorrow comes – they forgot.”) When a bucketing chorus arrives, yelling “you wouldn’t know what to do – you wouldn’t know if it jumped up and bit you,” you realise that you could wrap this up and post it to the next train company that makes you late, the next board member to fuck you around in the office… in fact any timeserver who blows out their duties.

Closer to home (and despite the meaty guitars), You Must Be The Devil could almost be The Beautiful South – rich and delicate male and female falsettos, and a song with a broken glass in one hand. Fingernails pry apart the more welcome, teasing tortures of love… you know, the kind remembered with a twisted pleasure once it’s all dried up. “There was a time you had me hooked, you had me hooked all helplessly. / You’d reel me in, then cast me out – lucky me.” Covering Jackie Lee’s dreamy White Horses, Galitza pull it off with a mixture of mischief and affection. Emma’s inclinations to succumb to the melody’s rich sway are continually undercut by Stevie’s blissfully distorted harmony vocals.

When Emma takes the full lead, Galitza are seduced into rich and subtle melodrama – frustrated love songs, well aware of their unhealthy obsessions yet determined to ride them through. Or, unable to escape them, to cherish them instead. “You’re right, you know you are; but it still feels wrong,” Emma sings on the plaintive Stalker (in which her voice lolls luxuriantly like a stoned jazz diva across the melody and the mosaic of guitars). “It’s a stupid streak, these fits of pique, / but it’s mine, this hopeless desire – / I confide, I feel like a liar.”

For Rattle In Me, she’s much more direct. A Massive Attack-styled lust-blues, with a seismic throb of Bristol bass and a swelling thorn-bush of rising guitar mass, it’s swarming with torch tension and growing anger. “You put this rattle in me; you pull me to you: then it’s ‘just-good-friends’,” Emma murmurs, a warning vibrating just beyond her controlled cool. Add another thoroughly compelling Leeds band to the list.

Galitza: ‘Laugh Like A Horse’
Wrath Records, WRATHCD05
CD/download-only EP
Released: October 2002

Buy it from:
CD from Wrath Records; download from iTunes.

Galitza online:
HomepageLastFM

September 2002 – album reviews – Steve Lawson’s ‘Lessons Learned from an Aged Feline Pt. 1’ album, 2002 (“a serious experimental musician as well as a family-friendly melody man”)

18 Sep

Steve Lawson: 'Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline - Pt 1'

Steve Lawson: ‘Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline – Part 1’

Dedicating an entire album to a cat sounds unforgivably twee, but Steve Lawson really couldn’t care less. He’s probably immune to any such embarrassment, having long fostered an image as The Cuddly Solo Bass Player (This included a stint braving potentially fatal scorn from Level 42 fans, when he played some unmanly support slots to their heroes while wearing angora coats, glitterball T-shirts and heterosexual nail varnish. If he isn’t immune to embarrassment, at least he can claim that that’s something Paul Simonon never had the balls to do.) There’s also solidity to his gesture: the cat in question is Steve’s old and ailing Abyssinian, and Steve himself is a firm believer in the lessons gained from loving our companions (pets included) and learning to accept their ageing and their eventual deaths.

Originally ‘Lessons Learned From An Ancient Feline Pt 1’ was a free companion release for the second Steve Lawson album – ‘Not Dancing For Chicken‘. As such, it’s inevitably less ordered. At the crudest summary, it’s an outtakes-plus kind of release compiling the bits of the ‘…Chicken’ sessions which didn’t fit comfortably onto the main album. Even so it gives a surprisingly effective rough’n’ready look at Lawson’s prolific and wide-ranging talent. The lover of pretty tunes who’s also a serious gear-hound and sound-mangler; the electronic texture looper who’ll groove like Gilberto. The distorted beat-science meddler with a thoroughly un-ironic taste for playing Fly Me To The Moon straight with no chaser or spoiler.

On the easy side, there are a couple of bits of Lawson the Latin lover. The opening One Hip Cat is a twangy Brazilian-style guitar study, allowing him to display some accomplished jazzy chops inside its lazy summery breeziness. There’s a hint of what’s to come via in the shape of the occasional odd drones undercutting the music; drifting in like the suspicion of sharky shadows deep below blue lagoon water. Here Endeth The Lesson is one of Steve’s loop-assisted live collaborations with himself – a duet between a slow Latin rhythm bass with a pillowy tone and a solo fretless bass carrying the tune. The latter (high and tenor-y) sings off into the dusk with an impeccable spacey melodicism, ultimately sliding away into a sleeper’s fade.

Either of these two pieces could have fitted into a summer jazz festival of samba and ice cream, and they’d also have matched those glitterball T-shirts. Two neighbouring pieces definitely couldn’t. Cute names notwithstanding, both Framulous Jam and Evil Harv’s Evil Empire are discombobulated systems music. Like everything else on the album, they’re generated solely by Steve’s bass guitar and effects rack in real time. Unlike the easy-on-the-ear pieces, they sound thoroughly electronic and abstracted.

Evil Harv’s Evil Empire arrays fast and atonal binary-on-off hums, mingling them with suspension-bridge twangs and plucks and snips. Interrupt silences and backward sounds are stewed into the brew, before all is ultimately rendered into a backdrop for some of Lawson’s roaming, unbounded glissandi. In Framulous Jam, harmonic chime-chords are worried gently by electronic interrupts, setting up interesting conflicts between hanging sustain and random blip-jitters. Both could sidle into those earnest meets in obscure juice bars, haunted by men from ‘The Wire’ intent on watching other men frown over gurgling laptops.

Ultimately, the album’s centrepiece is the saccharin-titled but sonically stretching two-parter Sleep Eat Snuggle Repeat. In the first part, angelic traces of sustained E-bow bass – thrillingly vocal – move between foggy front of cold and warm textures, exchanging almost imperceptibly. In echoing caverns beyond, pings ring like stressed piano notes, clocks tick, water drops, wah-pedals disgorge diffuse gushes of sound, and bubble-motors pulse and spurt. Part two builds on the preceding one. A float of sounds and traces are punctuated, now and again, by a giant organ-like roar as the digital stops are eased out. It’s pure abstract indulgence, but mightily effective. It sounds like the dreams of a flea on a whale.

The big joke is that behind the twee titles lurks Steve’s most bizarre album yet, and one which stakes his most effective claim to being a serious experimental musician as well as a family-friendly melody man. What was the most important lesson which Steve Lawson learned from his cat? Why, to move when you least expect it…

Steve Lawson: ‘Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline Pt 1’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0013(B) (no barcode)
CD-R/download album
Released: 2nd September 2002

Buy it from:
Bandcamp, download only. The original release was a CD-R included with early orders of ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’: some copies may be in circulation second-hand.

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

September 2002 – album reviews – Resindust’s ‘Resindust’ (“scattered art rock, post-rock, guru-guitar serenity and air-sculpture”)

14 Sep

Resindust: 'Resindust'

Resindust: ‘Resindust’

Let’s imagine that somewhere within British art-music, there’s a recovery zone, and that that’s where we find the two Resindust blokes trying to help each other out. On the one hand, there’s Lewis Gill – part of the North-West English avant-garde via guitar improv with The Psychiatric Challenge, full-on death-drone noisescaping with Sebastian, and rolling about in the electronica toybox with Vivahead. And on the other hand, there’s Tony Harn – the dedicated solo instrumental craftsman, happily out-of-step with time and trends. Usually, Tony purveys appealing guitar heroics blending jazz-fusion, ’70s rock beef and ’80s echo-box chitter somewhere between Durutti Column, Brian May and John Scofield.

Shape-shifter, meet Trusty.

Now… let’s say that perhaps Trusty’s seeking a way to become less clever and mannered. And perhaps Shape-shifter is experimenting with how to be less sprawling and bizarre. And let’s also consider that while most new projects are intended to be springboards, Resindust might well be intended as a set of emergency dampers. But that’s far too glib. Rather than chaperoning or circumscribing each other, the Resindusters thrive on creative, positive dilution. Ignoring the arm-wrestling of most jazz-rock and avant-garde stand-up fights, they melt into each other’s music at each meeting.

Thriving on the opposing poles of their drives and talents, they make the most of previous chemistry (having briefly played fusion-rock together in Lifebox) and of the interesting DIY sonic and instrumental layers they use to augment their odd-couple guitar work. Vocal hums, artlessly sweet woodwind, veering masses of low-key electronica, wind-chimes and flapping hoods of bass combine in a melange of scattered art rock, post-rock, guru-guitar serenity and air-sculpture. Recalling Fred Frith, Mike Oldfield, This Heat and AR Kane in equal parts, ‘Resindust’ contains some of the most thought-provoking music that either Tony or Lewis have produced to date.

For the guitar-led pieces, they opt for a disciplined approach: collective cycles of electric counterpoint, urged gently towards the panoramic. In Wireweave, Lewis’ earnest neurotic parts intersect Tony’s majestically burnished clockwork patterns in a cat’s-cradle of multiple guitar lines: but Tony also delivers a fat Queen-gone-space-rock solo, nudging through the delicacy like a gold-plated airship. When Tony’s in the driving seat, the duo incline towards ornate and looping structures with a definite prog taste. Suzanna weaves precisely-etched pastoral guitars into repeating, mellifluous Fabergé glitter. On Resindust itself, dogged multi-tracked guitars burrow up out of the same kind of minimalist shards and sketches as Bark Psychosis’ Pendulum Man. As these mesh together in a slow, precise pile-up, Tony’s bowed guitar and fretless bass offer bleak and slanting commentary amidst the hovering ambient string talk.

Lewis generally plays rogue element to Tony’s jewelled approach. He lets the guitars hang everywhere – polluting the atmospherics and hovering around their miasmic impressions of mosquitoes, sirens and beast growls. On Vorpmix, his slow-brewed sleet of industrial noise sharpens Tony’s beefy moans and scrapes of guitar ambience. The baleful, semi-ambient Critical is a trapdoor-land of sour and haunting guitar swells, with bent and wind-blown chords dropping from above like sheets of corroded tinfoil, scattering over the crematorium organ and thirsty windchimes. Yet it’s Lewis’ naïve murmurs of song-vapour which anchor Suzanna to earth, and for the softness of ‘Cotlife’ his guitars tease out tiny, waltzing, bluesy curlicues (beautifully judged and deliciously expressive; trimmed back to the size of comforting ghosts).


 
But although graceful or abused guitars dominate Resindust’s music, there’s no drop in interest when they’re laid aside in favour of Lewis and Tony’s remaining noisemakers. Windscream sets itself down in draughty chills of ambient keyboard and lamenting, clay-fluting recorder notes. A lone fretless bass mouths like a shipwrecked plesiosaur while vocal keens and burrs, chings and echoes chew gently at what remains of the structure. And for Artism, Lewis’ looped and layered a-cappella vocals wobble precariously over collapsing dub drum-spasms. Multiple descending harmonies skip down over nasal, throbbing madrigal jollity. Lapping slices of conversation toss words onto the shoreline beyond: phrases like “jigsaw puzzle” wash up from the background, and for a moment you wonder what it’d be like if Alan Bennett had ever muscled in on a Henry Cow chorale.

‘Resindust’ is an album of solace and reconciliation. It’s not just because of the gentle beauty and bewitching chaos that peek through its music from time to time, but because of the affectionate wit in the way it reconciles studied, precise musicality with the chance factors and absurdity of raw art instincts… all without so much as a stepped-on toe. Harn and Gill never really needed to use each other as a cure. They just needed that mutual hand-up to where they could bridge the nagging gaps together.

Resindust: ‘Resindust’
Resindust (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only album
Released: 2002

Buy it from:
Very rare – best obtained second-hand.

Tony Harn online:
Facebook MySpace YouTube

Lewis Gill online:
Homepage MySpace

August 2002 – live reviews – Prong + Needleye + Foe @ The Underworld, London, 22nd August 2002 (“pin-sharp vintage thrash, bridge-girder hardcore tunes and even a couple of sandpaper-throated singalongs”)

24 Aug

Watching from a sparsely attended moshpit, it strikes me that Foe are an uncommonly serene rock band, especially for a metalfest like this one. It’s partly the demeanour. Stage right, Jason Carty with guitar, looking like a slightly-built Viking who’s opted for books and meditation instead of battleaxe. Stage left, the looming ox-powerful figure of bassist Crawford Blair, with the blank, heavy-lidded poise of the expert craftsman at work on his five-hundredth perfect replica. Only Paul Westwood – lashing at the drums with pop-eyed concentration – seems to have read the metal-frenzy rulebook, expressing enough frantic urgency to cover for all of his bandmates’ apparent dispassion.

To be fair, it’s a dispassion that’s illusory. Foe care profoundly about what they do, sending long clean jags of rippling twelve-tone math-metal out into the air. Each Foe piece seems to have been built out of a spasming DNA helix, infallibly convulsing and tearing off in a new direction every fifteen seconds. Time signatures and pitches leap about like fleas. In half a minute alone, King Crimson, Naked City, Henry Cow and Dillinger Escape Plan appear in the music, tip a hat, and disappear again. The overall impression, though, is of the passionate serenity (that word again) and protracted seriousness of a Frank Zappa guitar solo, mapped out on graph paper and rearranged for post-punk power-metal trio. Crawford reluctantly delivers comments between songs, as if his arm’s being lightly twisted by an offstage manager. One song’s apparently called Pick On God for a Good Laugh.

Dolled up to the nines, the London metal crowd line the Underground’s upper terrace and look on. Black clothing which creaks; carefully-selected offensive t-shirts. Cleavage and translucence for the girls, studs and sculptured hair for almost everyone; black-and-white goth paint here and there. Puzzled looks almost everywhere, as Foe continue their intricate, tone-carving wranglings. All of the metal regalia, though, is outshone by a single Foe fan in a homemade melange of furry lite-pastel artificial fabrics, a choker made of luminous toys, trousers made from railwaymen’s safety vests, and (the crowning glory) a Hello Kitty rucksack. It’s as boldly twisted as any of Foe’s shape-shattering melodies. A couple of new converts scuttle into the moshpit, as the numbers click into place and joyful grins break across faces. It’s tough getting this kind of rocket science across to an audience.. but there are always more free agents to pick up.

Click. Next.

“All right, fuckers, we’re Needleye!” bawls a hefty bloke with mascara, a shoulder-length sweep of black Silkience hair and a mysteriously off-white jutting broom of Catweazle beard. Unlike Foe, Needleye have no intention of letting the music do all the talking. Four stretched-out men do their best to look roof-scrapingly tall while decked out in swarms of tattoos, PVC, scalplocks, leather and the kind of satanic Pharoah beards you suspect they’ve swiped from Slayer’s make-up cupboard. Plus there’s one wraith-thin possible-ladyboy in black-metal corset, pancake and black lippy, scowling down at a stack of technology while jabbing and tweaking it with the sadistic, nipping fingers of a bully at a girl’s school.

The boxes respond with a counter-barrage of ripping samples, clamorous plane-crash textures, and Uzi drumbeats. There’s no actual drummer. Drummers just aren’t lean and scary enough any more. There are some green “alien” lights, though. And some angular guitars that have to be played with a convulsive whole-body flick, like grain bending in the wind while in the throes of an epileptic fit.

The music? Fear Factory-style cyber-thrash, if you hadn’t guessed already. Head Needler Duncan Wilkinson vomits up phlegm-wads of incomprehensible words from his pancreas, presumably before Cannibal Corpse can go in after them with their nice new bonesaw. Two guitarists make noises like sheet-metal presses on nasty speed, while a space station goes berserk in the background. There is much lunging up and down.

The next half-hour is filled by relentless music that hogs the air like a swarm of flies. As yet another identical piece lifts off from the stage and barrel-rolls over the bouncing audience, I suddenly realise what’s been nagging me about the unvarying tempos, the constant machine-gun beat spray, the static web of guitar thunder. Those frozen and unyielding dynamics, the way nothing whatsoever changes throughout Needleye’s set… For all of the tortured rage and costume drama being acted out in the electro-terrorism onstage, this is actually about reassurance. This is ambient music for headbangers.

(At some point during Needleye’s ranting, I get introduced to a woman who makes sculptures of toilets out of chocolate. Somehow this makes sense. It’s that kind of an evening.)

After the theatrics, watching returning metal veterans Prong is almost like watching B.B. King. Actually, that’s not too far off. Underneath their muscular, knowing thrash assault is more healthy hot space than you’d expect. I keep having R’n’B flashbacks: like Aerosmith before them, Prong have a healthy sprinkling of the other black music to them. There’s swing and swagger behind their raucous noise (more than a few moments are closer to Cameo than to Metallica), which leaves some healthy breathing room in the music between their crushing riffs.

And compared to Needleye’s painstaking obsession with image, this band pay no more than basic-black, sufficiently shaggy attention to the metal uniform. With sixteen years of changes behind him, singer/guitarist Tommy Victor is the only remaining original Prong member: and with the band’s links to darker musicians like Killing Joke and Swans now consigned to the past (guitarist Monte Pittman’s most recent gig was with Madonna), they’re able to bathe a little more in mainstream American metal. If it rocks, don’t glitz it.

If there’s a little more compromise to Prong’s music than there was back in the days when they were thrash-metal spearheads, it’s a compromise made entirely with their fans and no-one else. As the atmosphere of the now-packed Underworld begins to build up to New-Year’s-Party level, Tommy makes no attempt to conceal how much he’s enjoying himself. He’s the first man I’ve ever seen deliver those crypt-rattling hardcore/death metal vocals with a broad grin (instead of gurning in agony as if undergoing brutal rectal surgery), and he revels in bringing his Cockneyfied punk singing-accent back to its hometown.

Sweeping through a long set that draws on pin-sharp vintage thrash, bridge-girder hardcore tunes and even a couple of sandpaper-throated singalongs, Prong are as comfortable as they are tight. A band with enough history, and enough of a grasp of history, to relax into the flow and enjoy their snug place in the pulse of tradition. There’s more than one route to serenity.

Prong online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music

Needleye online:
Homepage MySpace Soundcloud Last FM Spotify

Foe online:
Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM Amazon Music
 

July 2002 – album reviews – Steve Lawson’s ‘Not Dancing for Chicken’ (“a nifty bantamweight with a remarkable ear for timbral decoration”)

14 Jul
Steve Lawson: 'Not Dancing For Chicken'

Steve Lawson: ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’

Steve Lawson’s second solo album shows that he’s taking assured strides in all directions. His relaxed, informal debut (2000’s ‘And Nothing But The Bass‘) was a generous concoction of looped and jazzy bass guitars, vivid electronic textures and welling ambiences. It showed what could happen when benevolent prettiness intermeshes with a generous pinch of sound-warping avant-garde tendencies.

Lawson’s latest solo efforts display a more kaleidoscopic approach while losing none of that endearing friendliness. “Not dancing for chicken” is a war-cry – something to do with buckets of junk food, the waning star of MC Hammer and the fight between commercialism and art. To be honest, Lawson can sit that specific war out. He can mash up sound with the best of them (as he’s done with the French improvisers Franck Vigroux and Jerome Curry), but the warrior/guru moves of the dedicated avant-gardener aren’t really his style. Instead of responding to sickly market pap with ferocious spills of obvious disruption, he marries simple, memorable rivulets of melody to a broad field of sonic treatments. In doing so, he creates music which rather than turning its back and raging will instead sail right in under the commercial radar to tickle people’s senses. If that makes him an armchair revolutionary, at least he’s the kind who offers you the armchair first.

To define this better, one could quote one of his own song titles: Lawson believes in “the virtue of the small.” Sticking to a single-take, bass-guitar-only rule (and pursuing his experiments with sound processors, EBow sustainers and loop technology), he continues to hit the elusive target of making music-for-everyone. Centred on a deft, tuneful and jazzy core, his music avoids the predictable calisthenics of fusion and the stolid members-club beefiness of mainstream jazz and post-bop. Instead, he’s a nifty bantamweight with a remarkable ear for timbral decoration, and an obvious love for his listeners.

No More Us And Them displays this perfectly, showing Lawson at his very best. Cascading curtains of gorgeous submarine texture tumble in waves over particularly poignant fretless bass figures and a questioning melody which hovers marvellously between mourning and hope. By way of contrast, MMFSOG offers a goofy Hawaiian celebration. Lawson squeezes out a typewriter rattle of tabla-styled slap groove before anointing it with layer upon layer of mischievously camouflaged bass sounds. Most notable is the giddy, slippery steel guitar impression, roller-blading precariously across the verses; but there are also cicada choruses, stunt-plane zips of backwards melodies and blankets of Warp-styled electronica burble on offer. Eventually Lawson cheerfully runs the song into the swamp and leaves it there to marinade, taking up more mutant funk on Channel Surfing in which a stupefied, robotic slap line chunters merrily under a pale, ringing line of tumbledown chord arches. Various queasy jazz riffs and funky wriggles squeeze past it as best they may.

Although Lawson delights in cooking up this kind of loop stew, ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’ doesn’t reject tradition. On Regretting The Rainbow (the most complex piece on offer) he employs his six-string contrabass to blend elements of jazz guitar smoothies Martin Taylor and Joe Pass in a luscious and breezy study, steered subtly towards some difficult questions via an intrusion of quizzical harmony. Danny And Mo lets Lawson’s fretless bass and EBow gently sing the praises of underrated British bass heroes: a nice counterbalance to the endless musical tributes to Jaco Pastorius tumbling from other bass players.

A couple of pieces (the relaxed Brazilian lilt of Amo Amatis Amare and the stumble-blues of Tom Waits For No Man) are one-man-band opportunities to fool around with some familiar forms, to Lawsonify them, and to take advantage of some truly appalling puns. Two ballads – Need You Now and Jimmy James – showcase Lawson’s humble-yet-richly-romantic solo tone, as well as his flair for understated counterpoint via a couple of artfully poised loops. The latter (a valediction to a lost friend) moves away from simple Windham Hill prettiness thanks to the eerie fingertip-on-glass textures that circulate behind its warm, sleepy fretless melody.

The stranger music sends Lawson into a different area again. Exit Sandman is a lurking mood piece, a sour work-song riff wafting up into vaporous blue-grey wails of E-bow. No Such Thing As An Evil Face is a ghostly African death-song. The amnesiac Ubuntu is a similar set of waves reaching the beach, Lawson’s backing loops providing tinkling tabla tones and prinking noises like cooling shrapnel.

The finale, Highway 1, brings all of Lawson’s work together. The rich, free-ranging travellers melody sits on gently swinging cradles of clicks, pops and ghost notes and on shimmering shells of chords. It’s carried in turn by a sweet, blues-y wah-tone like a swamp foghorn, then a shimmering ripple of backwards basses, then a sky-borne E-bow wail which flutters like a giant and beautiful moth. Lawson conjures up heat-hazes and mirage-doubles of parts and melody out of his loops pedals, and will-o-the-wisps dance counterpoint but never obscure the relaxed momentum of the tune as it heads onwards to a permanent perfect sunset and fades out; still travelling as hopefully as the smiling man on the bass.

Steve Lawson: ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0013 (no barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 1st July 2002

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

June 2002 – EP reviews – David Hurn’s ‘No Love’ (“a shadowed smile”)

30 Jun

David Hurn: 'No Love'

David Hurn: ‘No Love’

The stained bedsitter velvet has been slung out of the window. One of David Hurn’s hands has grabbed a palmful of chicken grease; the other’s holding that classic rock’n’roll cigarette he’s just taken a big drag on. A blue train runs through his music now, threading into the lyrics and sounds of No Love (smoke-puffs, whistles and all), carrying honky-tonk piano and a bucketing Scotty Moore guitar along with it. And David’s voice, which once murmured behind doors and into fringes, now croons with that peculiar blend of pain and relief which you hear in the voices of those who’ve cast away a beloved burden. He sounds positively frisky for someone who’s fallen off the love-boat.

But then, there’s often relief in shucking a responsibility which you knew you never had the stomach for. “A child’s morning prayer couldn’t save my soul / or deliver you the miracle that I know you’re waiting for. / Oh, where is the good in anything, / when there’s no love in your heart any more?” This is less David Hurn Unplugged than David Hurn Unshaven – as if he’s woken up to find that much in the world still sucks, but has met the day with a wry grimace and is simply getting on with it, having learned the protective value of the shrug. Even when delivering a line like “the little piece of hope that I had – well, it just turned bad, / and it’s hiding in my flesh but it’s never coming back”, his lugubrious voice has a shadowed smile to it that it’s never possessed before: even a hint of flirtation.

Despite the soakings of Americana, No Love is a change from David’s previous leanings towards the moodiness of American Music Club and Ryan Adams. As is his Elvis tribute in covering Is It So Strange – faithful to every nuance of slapback, shake’n’tremble and deep-fried ham, it’s full-fat Presley rendered with unconditional love, rather than the cartoon camp that usually strangles that Memphis hiccup. But the familiar Hurn sadcore isn’t far away: the gorgeous alternative “slow version” of No Love (drowning in Low murmur and narcotic steel guitar) could’ve sat proudly on AMC’s ‘Engine’ or ‘United Kingdom’.

David Hurn: 'No Love (slow version)'

Both Books Etc. and Ballad For A Lost Cause – the latter recorded live at Moriarty’s, with police sirens howling past and bleeding through the walls – are quiet acoustic-driven breaths fogging the cold mirror of hope, struggling with self-determination (“I don’t need to know if anything’s above me, watching me cry my tears. / Don’t need a light showing me my fears,”) and delivering harsh truths (“the lesson is hard only if you’re stupid /and didn’t know what you threw away, / or what you could have saved…”). Ballad For A Lost Cause in particular – with its Nick Drake mixture of deceptively soft textures and oblique, meditative lyrics – sees David keeping a firm grip on his lonesome songwriter laurels as he picks apart another story from a mishandled life. “Failure to the end, you didn’t know how to win favours from impossible dreams. / So you should hold something back, but you’ll never see…”

He hasn’t thrown away the key to his bedsit yet, whatever the pull of that train-whistle.

David Hurn: ‘No Love’
Fire Records, PUFF 003
CD/download EP
Released: 24th June 2002

Buy it from:
Fire Records or Bandcamp (CD only).

David Hurn online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp

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